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Cycling Through a Saigon of the Mind

From Bad to Versifier: The Poet (Tony Leung-Chiu Wai) specializes in deflowering innocents--literally and figuratively--in "Cyclo."

Innocence is far from an absolute notion in 'Cyclo' for Vietnamese film director Tran Anh Hung

By Richard von Busack

AN ARTIST is an exile anywhere he goes, and thus, the return of director Tran Anh Hung to Vietnam, where he made Cyclo, can't strictly be described as a homecoming. Hung hasn't lived in Vietnam since he was 4--although he lived until he was 12 in a Vietnamese neighborhood in Laos. "It's important that you know I lived with the same trees, the same fruits, as across the border," he says.

Hung re-created a patch of 1960s-era Vietnam on a Paris sound stage for his first film, The Scent of Green Papaya, in which he displayed an obsessive vision that was--according to your taste--either hypnotic and evocative, or boring.

The first international filmmaker to emerge from Vietnam is an ex-philosophy student at the Sorbonne. France left its mark on this cerebral, ironical man. He first denies that French literature made much of an impression on him and then adds, "For me, the smell of a spoiled fruit on a burning afternoon tells me much more than any kind of image." What could be more Proustian than that comment? Indeed, Hung seems to have taken to heart the common comparison of The Scent of Green Papaya to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, with a garden fruit taking the place of that famous stimulus of the memory, the madeleine cookie.

In Cyclo, however, Hung veers away from Proust to explore the terrain of the French symbolists. The film is infused with a vision of innocence lost and found (and defiled with blood) and awash in symbols such as the nosebleeds that strike a poet (in fact, he is called the Poet) turned to crime as he literally dissects a flower or dispassionately watches a fresh young girl corrupted.

The Poet's dispassion can be sensed in the filmmaker. Cyclo is not a melodrama, Hung claims: "One can see things in a much more refined manner than that. The entire theme of the film is around the loss of innocence--though for me, innocence is not an absolute notion. Cyclo is about a person who considers himself spiritually dead, because he lives only by the nostalgia of this innocence. He needs to see innocence at work in order to live."

A movie fan can be very jaundiced on the subject of innocence, which is so often used to justify cheap sentiment. Hung, however, convincingly conveys the lives of Saigon's oppressed. The film has the scope of realism translated into a maze of symbols. This isn't the Vietnamese version of The Bicycle Thief; it's something much stranger.

The characters are known to us, as in silent film, through their occupations. The Cyclo (nonprofessional actor Le Van Loc) is a young pedal-cab driver from a very poor family. The son of a cyclo who was killed in a traffic accident, his family consists of a grandfather who fixes bicycle tires; a younger sister who is a shoe-shine girl; and an older daughter, called Sister (Tran Nu Yên Khê, the lead from The Scent of Green Papaya). The Cyclo is employed by the Madam (Nguyen Nhu Quynh), a boss with a brain-damaged son and many businesses, a few of which are legitimate.

When his bicycle is stolen, the Cyclo becomes one of the Madam's enforcers. He descends into crime, or rather, bobs on the surface: the members of his gang consider him too green and sentimental. The Madam's officer and sometimes lover, the Poet (Hong Kong star Tony Leung-Chiu Wai), wants to keep the Cyclo freelance, because he is turning out Sister as a prostitute.

The story sounds monochromatic, but it's told in efflorescent imagery and color, and enlivened by the presence of Khê. She's probably what Hung meant about innocence not being absolute. Sister is oddly delighted as she has her toenails polished tenderly by a fetishist, who proceeds to have her knead a bowl full of noodle dough with her feet.

Hung's facility with cityscapes is remarkable; he and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme startle us with the brightness of modern plastic colors against the earth tones of Saigon. The movie is set in Black River, reputedly Saigon's worst slum. A lily-pad-covered stream coursing by the kitchen of the Cyclo's family seems at first a picturesque gesture, until Hung and Delhomme shoot it from another angle so that we can see the refuse floating in it.

Hung is in love with a vision of humanity as the meeting place of the sacred and the profane. Even if the idea seems annoying in the abstract (dirt-poor people deserve to be more than symbols), Hung pursues this duality with a stirring, deeply imaginative visual style, managing to express simplistic ideas with great eloquence.

HUNG HAS David Lynch's sense of the surreal popping out of the normal: the almost gaglike persistence of a faulty electrical switch or the mirthless slapstick of a boy's compulsion to play with cans of paints. And underneath the surface tale of a brother and sister going bad is a parallel story of lives exchanged in the relationship of the orphaned Cyclo and the Madam's smothered-with-love, but mindless, son.

Connecting the inner and outer stories are shocking acts of violence, including a visit to a slaughterhouse, the forced ingestion of a chemical corrosive and a stabbing that seems to go on forever. These scenes should scare away the rest of the audience not already alienated by Hung's elliptical storytelling.

Hung says he was reading a lot of Yukio Mishima when he made Cyclo. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver (a usual comparison point for Cyclo), was enough of an enthusiast of the tormented Japanese novelist to have made a film about him. The theme of lives tied up in Gordian knots that can only be untied by a stroke of violence is exemplified by Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, and both books influenced Schrader. But in the familiar way of such movies by American filmmakers, Schrader's heroes are pushed into cleansing acts of killing. In Hung's film, the Cyclo harms no one but himself--and is saved.

The heroine is also redeemed, after her own perhaps inevitable fate worse than death (Cyclo is most puzzling in its demure refusal to explain what exactly it is that a virgin prostitute does for a living). Obviously, there is more to the occasional difficulty of Cyclo than just what the British film magazine Sight and Sound called its "unfashionable moralistic point." At its most mundane, Cyclo suggests that money is, basically, an unsuitable thing for poor people to have.

If I had trouble swallowing some of Cyclo's conceits, I was still quite taken by it. The surfaces are alluring, the choices of locale and approach are fascinating, and the acting is beautifully subtle. Khê possesses the sort of purity that silent film celebrated. Above all, Cyclo is passionate for its imagined world. Hung's Vietnam may not be the real Vietnam that émigrés pine for, but it's a tangible vision--a world of his own.

Cyclo (R; 129 min.), directed and written by Tran Anh Hung, photographed by Benoit Delhomme and starring Le Van Loc and Tran Nu Yên Khê.

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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